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The Elephant Celebes arrived in 1921, when Max Ernst was only 30 years old. It marked the start of the artist's confident step into the world of Surrealism, a movement in which he would leave a huge legacy over the rest of his career.
A fleeting follower of modern art would not immediately be aware of the components added to this composition, and could initially only judge it by its pure aesthetic value. This would, of course, leave them missing out on the deeper layers of the artist's work. In the bottom right corner of this painting you will find the inscription of "Celebes" - this was the initial shortened title given to the painting by Ernst. This large oil on canvas piece is now owned by the Tate Modern in London and ranks amongst their most significant Surrealist artworks.
The elephant from Celebes
German rhyme which inspired the title of this piece
has sticky, yellow bottom grease.
The elephant from Sumatra
always f*cks his grandmama.
The elephant from India
can never find the hole ha-ha.
One's eye is immediately drawn to the large figure that dominates the composition. It appears to be half-elephant, half-machine and is known to have been directly inspired by influences from African art, specifically Sudanese. The bull horns and totem-esque poll continue this theme. Max Ernst is just one of a number of famous European artists who made use of inspiration from this intriguing and unique continent, where its primitive approach was totally in tune with many modern art beliefs. This influence went into sculpture as well, and Max Ernst showed a similar set of influences in that medium too.
Max Ernst had come across photographs of something called a Konkombwa, which is a huge barrel for storing corn. The resemblance between them and this painting are very obvious, the bottom elements of the clay pot even resemble the feet of an animal. In the early 20th century many Europeans would have known very little about traditional African art, making this piece all the most breathtaking and groundbreaking. Japanese art was a famous inspiration for European artists, particularly the post-impressionists, and now it appeared to be the turn of Africa to inspire new movements such as elements to the Surrealist group as well as Cubism and Primitivism.
Some of the interesting artistic elements to this composition include the low horizon which exaggerates the size of the dominant items in this piece, and makes the smaller elements even more so. This was a key technique used in Surrealism more generally, and Max Ernst repeats it in several of his other paintings in this period of the early 1920s. There is a mannequin added to the foreground, cropped by the overall artwork around the waste. There are also two fish in the top left of the scene, as if flying through the air. Reality is bent is turned upside down by Surrealists when allowing their mind to take control of the canvas. There is also a plume of smoke in the background which perhaps links to the artist's time at war. He spoke honestly about how his time at service had changed him significantly.
If we are to dissect this painting into Surrealism and Dadaism, we would point to the overall atmosphere created by the artist as being decidely surrealist, similar to some of the paintings of Dali, such as Disintegration of the Persistence of Memory or Elephants. The elements of Dada art is the use of different items collaged together. That movement brought about several techniques in high level art for the first time, such as photomontage, cut-up and assemblage. We are also well aware of Matisse's Cut-Outs, but he was more involved in the Fauvist movement, and resorted to this technique because of his own health restrictions.